Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Jailing Poor People for Begging
The jail here in Orange Walk has three cells. Each cell is about the size of a 10 x 12 horse stall. The small windows on the north side let in enough light to hedge a guess about the weather on the outside, but not enough of a breeze to cool off the cramped quarters where 8 to 10 men reside. The stench is unbearable since many of the men are arrested while drunk.
Today I was summoned to court to “interpret” for a deaf man that I know. Unfortunately I am the only person in Orange Walk who can voice what the deaf mans says. Unfortunately because I can’t hear the judge well and really am not qualified to “interpret”.
During the course of the judge’s questions we learned that he was charged with wandering the streets begging. He has no family, was abandoned when he was a child, lives alone in a house without electricity, food or water, and has no source of income. He has an outstanding bill for court costs from the last time he was picked up with cocaine in his pocket. When the judge read his conviction, the deaf man responded, “Yes, but what else can I do?” They sent him back to jail. He will remain in jail for up to three months. During that time someone from Human Services is supposed to get him in a rehab/job referral program. But he is deaf, and there are no interpreters in Orange Walk, so it’s hard to see how he will benefit from the rehab counseling.
My first reaction was this is incredibly unfair. The man is poor. He’s always been poor. He never had an education or a nurturing family. Throwing him in jail merely takes this man, an eyesore, a nuisance, someone we are embarrassed by, off the street. Mayan people believe strongly about sharing with each other and taking care of each other. It’s fundamental. How can it be against the law for a poor person to beg when they are hungry?
And then I thought, I wonder what Jesus would do if he encountered this man. There certainly were a lot of disabled beggars in Jesus’ day. I never heard of him giving them money. He gave them something more, the power to change. He said to man at the pool at Bethesda, (John 5) “Do you want to get well?” It sounds like a silly question. What poor crippled man lying by a pool begging would not want to get well?
I imagined asking the deaf man the same question: Are you ready to give up your addictions? Do you want to stop begging and work? I think he might say, “But what can I do?” He’s given up.
Maybe the man at the well, who had lain there for 38 years had given up, too. He responded to Jesus with hopelessness. “Everyone gets into the pool before me.” It’s no use. I will always be like this.
Jesus sensed his hopelessness. Jesus wanted to enable him. Did he walk over and lift him up? Did he soothe him with flattery and words of encouragement? Jesus knew the crippled man needed to make an effort. He had to pick himself up. When the man made the move to stand, Jesus healed him. Would Jesus have healed him if he continued to moan and lie on his mat? I doubt it.
Many times when I encounter the deaf man begging in town, I talk to him about Jesus. I pray with him. He says he prays and he will change. In fact most times when he sees me, staggering toward me with his hand out and almost blind drunk, he says “I pray.” Others, too, have talked to him, but he hasn’t changed.
I still wonder how to be Jesus to this man. I wonder how to help him pick up his mat and walk.